Never Believe Anything Until It Is Officially Denied

Otto von Bismarck? Cynical Broker? Hy Sheridan? Claud Cockburn? Edward Cheyfitz? Anonymous?

bismarck11Dear Quote Investigator: Cynicism regarding official edicts is not a new phenomenon. Reportedly, the powerful German leader Otto von Bismarck once said:

Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.

Yet, these words have also been attributed to more recent political figures such as the journalist Claud Cockburn and the Washington attorney Edward Cheyfitz. Would you please help determine the proper ascription?

Quote Investigator: This sharp remark which borders on paradox can be expressed in many ways; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI was published in “The Tri-Weekly Gleaner” of Kingston, Jamaica in 1897. A writer suggested that pronouncements from the government in the Transvaal region of Africa were unreliable. The adage about official denials was credited to a “cautious observer”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The fact that the Government have once more pledged themselves to execute reforms is taken as quite sufficient reason for not believing in them. A cautious observer declared: “I never accept anything about the Government until it has been officially denied; then I know it is true.”

In 1900 “The Times” newspaper of London printed a letter from a correspondent with the moniker “Behind the Scenes” who presented the witticism as an axiom and provided no attribution. The same letter was reprinted in “The St. James Gazette” of London: 2 3

It is an axiom of practical politics never to believe anything until it has been officially denied.

Otto von Bismarck died in 1898, and an instance of the saying was attributed to him by 1911. Claud Cockburn included a version in his 1956 memoir, but he was relaying an unattributed remark. In 1958 a note in the “Reader’s Digest” cited “Look” magazine to credit Edward Cheyfitz. These citations were rather late, and the current evidence favors an anonymous origin.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1901 a New York periodical called “Medical News” published a letter from a correspondent in London that discussed the health of King Edward VII. The letter contended that the adage had many adherents: 4

It has not been considered expedient to give any official denial to the rumors; in the first place, because there are many people who never believe a thing until it has been officially denied; and, secondly, because if this particular rumor were denied now, another to the effect that the King had tuberculosis or some other serious ailment would probably have to be denied the next week.

In 1911 “The Irish Times” in Dublin printed an editorial column that included an instance of the saying attributed to Otto von Bismarck. This was the first linkage to Bismarck found by QI: 5

He denied the story that the Nationalist Party was pressing exorbitant demands upon the Government, and that the Cabinet was divided in consequence. We remember Bismarck’s warning not to believe anything until it has been officially denied, but it seems a priori improbable that the Nationalists would do anything to benefit Ireland which had not the sanction of their Liberal masters.

In 1924 “The Cornhill Magazine” published an article titled “Bismarck at Home: 1885” which was also reprinted in “The Living Age”. The author, Kenneth Gibbs, when he was a child accompanied his father on a journey to meet Bismarck in Germany. The father, Henry Hucks Gibbs, was president of an organization called the Bimetallic League, and such a meeting would cause controversy. Before the gathering took place an official governmental notice denied that Bismarck had met with Gibbs. In a narrow sense, this statement was accurate because the conversation occurred after the issuance of the denial. Kenneth Gibbs summarized his reaction with an invocation of the adage which he tentatively ascribed to Bismarck: 6

The Prince was, I think, the author of the saying that he never believed anything till it had been officially denied!

In 1935 an article from an American correspondent in “The Times” of London attributed the saying to a “cynical broker”: 7

Diplomatic denials are by no means unknown in American commercial life, as is testified by the well-known advice of a cynical broker never to believe anything until it is officially denied.

In 1939 a short piece in “The Index-Journal” of Greenwood, South Carolina ascribed the maxim to Bismarck: 8

Then there was blunt old Bismarck who said: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied.”

In 1942 “LIFE” magazine published the following variant of the saying: 9

France had every reason to applaud Bismarck’s saying, “Nothing is proved finally true until it is officially denied.”

In 1944 a letter writer in a Washington D.C. newspaper employed an instance with the word “rumor”: 10

…a dictum pronounced, I think, by an Englishman. In the field of politics and diplomacy, it ran, never believe a rumor until it has been officially denied.

In 1951 a tale by Hy Sheridan in “Flying” magazine placed the joke into dialog between pilots: 11

“I’m not worried, exactly,” Tom replied. “I just don’t know what to believe.”
“That’s easy,” the tall pilot observed. “Don’t believe anything until it is officially denied.”

In 1956 “A Discord of Trumpets: An Autobiography” by the journalist Claud Cockburn was released, and the adage was included with a non-specific ascription: 12

Since becoming a journalist I had often heard the advice to “believe nothing until it has been officially denied.”

Also in 1956 the saying was reformulated as a definition for a newspaper feature called the “Comic Dictionary”: 13 14

SKEPTIC
A man who always puts off believing something until it has been officially denied.

In 1957 a syndicated comic called “Little Liz” used the following as a caption for a single panel showing a girl listening while one woman whispered to another woman: 15

Almost nobody believes a rumor until it has been officially denied.

In 1958 the widely circulated periodical “Reader’s Digest” linked the saying to Edward Cheyfitz while acknowledging a writer in “Look” magazine: 16

Attorney Edward Cheyfitz on Washington gossip: Nobody believes a rumor here until it’s officially denied. — Irv Kupcinet, quoted in Look

In 1960 the adage appeared together with miscellaneous quotations in a column titled “And I Quote”. Cheyfitz was credited with a phrasing that differed a bit from the instance in “Reader’s Digest”: 17

Nobody believes a rumor in Washington unless it’s officially denied. — Attorney Edward Cheyfitz

In conclusion, this saying was presented without a precise ascription in the earliest instances found by QI; hence, it should be considered anonymous based on current data. Future researchers may discover additional pertinent citations. The first published linkage to Bismarck appeared in 1911, and yet the statesman died in 1897; hence, support for this attribution was weak.

Hy Sheridan and Claud Cockburn used instances in 1951 and 1956, respectively. But the expression was already in circulation and Cockburn disclaimed credit. The adage was assigned to Edward Cheyfitz by 1958, and he may have used it, but it was already known.

Image Notes: Portrait of Otto Von Bismarck via Wikimedia Commons. Crossroads sign from geralt at Pixabay. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Larry Kummer whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to Nigel Rees, editor of “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”, Mardy Grothe, editor of “Oxymoronica”, and researcher Barry Popik for their efforts exploring this quotation.)

Notes:

  1. 1897 August 31, The Tri-Weekly Gleaner (Kingston Gleaner), The Land of Gold: Affairs in the Transvaal, Quote Page 7, Column 7, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1900 December 10, The Times, Mr. Kruger and France, (Letter dated December 9 to the editor from “Behind the Scenes”), Quote Page 10, Column 6, London, England. (The Times UK Database from Gale)
  3. 1900 December 10, The St. James Gazette, France and Mr. Kruger, Quote Page 7, Column 2, London, England. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1901 November 23, Medical News, Volume 79, Issue 21, Correspondence: Our London Letter, (From Our Special Correspondent; dated November 9, 1901), Quote Page 833, Column 2, Published by Lea Brothers, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals II)
  5. 1911 May 8, The Irish Times, (Untitled editorial article), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Dublin, Ireland. (ProQuest)
  6. 1924 August 16, The Living Age, Volume 322, Bismarck at Home: 1885 by The Archdeacon of St. Albans (Kenneth Gibbs), (Reprinted from “The Cornhill Magazine, July 1924), Start Page 318, Quote Page 318, Living Age Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  7. 1935 September 2, The Times, Extent Of Oil Deposits (From Our Own Correspondent) Quote Page 10, Column 2, London, England. (The Times UK Database from Gale)
  8. 1939 May 2, The Index-Journal, Speaking of “Denials”, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Greenwood, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1942 March 16, LIFE, Wartime Censorship: How England keeps its freedom of the press by Brendan Bracken, Quote Page 71, Column 1, Published by Time, Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1944 January 27, Evening Star, Russia Defended by Writer Who Quotes Canterbury Dean (Letter to the Editor of The Star from Victoria L. Munro, Fairfax, Virginia), Quote Page 8, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1951 January, Flying Magazine, Volume 48, Number 1, The Bank and the Bunk by Hy Sheridan (Contributing editor of Flying), Start Page 30, Quote Page 60, Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1956, A Discord of Trumpets: An Autobiography by Claud Cockburn, Quote Page 190, (London edition from Hart-Davis titled “In Time of Trouble”), Published by Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1956 April 7, Daily Boston Globe, Comic Dictionary, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  14. 1956 April 10, San Rafael Daily Independent Journal, Comic Dictionary: Skeptic, Quote Page 1, Column 2, San Rafael, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  15. 1957 December 17, The Courier-Gazette, Little Liz (single panel cartoon), Quote Page 1, Column 1, McKinney, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1958 August, Reader’s Digest, Volume 73, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 193, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1960 March 5, Pottstown Mercury, and I Quote, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Pottstown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)